JACKI LYDEN, host:
Over the course of his life, Harry Houdini, the great magician and escape artist, challenged the boundaries of the material and spiritual world. He performed death-defying feats and leapt off bridges while manacled and encased in boxes, suspending himself upside-down in a water-filled chamber. Always, Houdini pushed himself in life-threatening feats of escape, dazzling audiences and adding to his own legend.
A new biography of Houdini also suggests that he was a spy for the U.S. and British governments back before World War I. William Kalush and Larry Sloman are the authors of "The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero."
I'm joined now by William Kalush. Welcome to the show.
Mr. WILLIAM KALUSH (Author): Well, thank you very much, Jacki.
LYDEN: You know, a lot is known about Harry Houdini, and a lot, I think, by now is unknown. It's been 80 years since his death. Would you tell us something about his early life?
Mr. KALUSH: Well, he was born in Budapest in 1874, and as a very young boy he was brought over with his other siblings and they ended up in Appleton, Wisconsin, of all unlikely places.
LYDEN: The Houdini family was named Weiss.
Mr. KALUSH: That's right. He was born Ehrich Weiss and later would change his name to Houdini.
LYDEN: Where did he get that name?
Mr. KALUSH: Well, after the family had relocated to New York, Houdini had a job - one of his many - in a necktie cutting factory, and a fellow who worked there with him who also was interested in magic, they both got the bug by reading a book, an autobiography of the great French master Robert-Houdin, who's known then and now as the father of modern magic.
LYDEN: And of course, Houdin is spelled H-O-U-D-I-N. The H is silent.
Mr. KALUSH: Absolutely.
LYDEN: Now, William Kalush, why do you call Harry Houdini a superhero?
Mr. KALUSH: The whole concept of a super man was generated between 1899 and 1919. Houdini had created this mythology that was he could escape from anything under any circumstances, and he successfully became part of the language. By 1919 they were even writing articles about how this name Houdini was a synonym for escape and for magic.
LYDEN: You could commit a Houdini.
Mr. KALUSH: That's right. To me that's a very important point because obviously we still use him as part of the language now. And instead of kind of resting on that, he decided what he would do is use this money, these skills, this fame, and he would help others, and he became an advocate for the public good in a specific field, which was against fraudulent spiritualists.
LYDEN: At the time, people were being defrauded of lots of money all over the country by others who posed as spiritualists who could communicate with the dead, right?
Mr. KALUSH: Absolutely. In fact, Houdini had been a fraudulent spiritualist himself.
LYDEN: When he needed to make money. You also write in this book that he was a friend and perhaps a secret agent for the American and British governments because he was very famous before World War I. He spoke German. But then you put him in England. He goes to London and he befriends the head of Scotland Yard's special branch, a man named William Melville and impresses him with this ability to get out of manacles.
Mr. KALUSH: That's right. He meets Melville. It's very interesting that here's somebody who's unknown in England and he meets one of the most important police officers in all of Great Britain at the time, William Melville, who's in charge of foreign intelligence for Great Britain. And he immediately gets an endorsement from Melville, which is enormous, and starts to succeed and is sent, or decides to go, to Germany, another place he's unknown. And what we found was that Houdini was sending back information about what he saw in Germany. And in 1908, the last entry we have from Houdini, Houdini had a special sort of military exercise or carnival that the Kaiser would put on and we believe he was there looking at very early aircraft that were being developed for warfare in Germany.
LYDEN: So at that time, presumably Melville already wondered about the Kaiser's intentions with regard to the rest of Europe.
Mr. KALUSH: No question. And some of these reports were actually important enough where Melville noted in his diary, Received the report from HH, took it straight to the War Office.
LYDEN: Now, could you please describe, I think we should get to at least some of these amazing escape acts that Houdini was primarily known for, and how about choosing the Siberian transport cell which brought him eventually to the attention of Czar Nicholas. What was the Siberian transport cell?
Mr. KALUSH: Well, they had a horse drawn carriage that was - its whole purpose was to put prisoners, and primarily political prisoners, in. They'd lock the door in Moscow and then it would take its - I think it was a 27-day or something trip to Siberia with no heat.
LYDEN: In this carriage, this horse drawn carriage lined with metal?
Mr. KALUSH: It'd never been escaped from and of course it was really a fearsome device. And it's an amazing escape, where they really strip search him. They're brutal. The look every possible place you can imagine for any sort of device and then they chain him into this, this inescapable box. And we backtracked using techniques that Houdini had talked about later in his life, about how to get out of various things. And we put together what we believe is the explanation of how he escaped from this treacherous device.
LYDEN: Which you conjecture is the false finger story.
Mr. KALUSH: Well, we know that Houdini used false fingers because he talks about it later. And we know about the use of what's called a Gigli saw, which is a little serrated piece of wire that could - it's strong enough to - in fact surgeons invented it to cut through the human skull. And something like that hidden in a finger and possibly something like a sort of can opener that could cut through the zinc, that's how we conjecture that it happened. It's also possible that he bribed his way out, but I think that it's not romantic enough. I think he probably actually escaped it the honest way, so to speak.
LYDEN: You write that intelligence services, certainly British intelligence services anyway, used some of these kinds of devices for the Secret Service in England.
Mr. KALUSH: That's right.
LYDEN: James Bond.
Mr. KALUSH: Well, actually, you know, now that you mention James Bond - we'll go back to William Melville briefly. This William Melville that we say recruited Houdini retired in 1903 and was supposedly - until the 1990s, it was thought that he just actually retired. And now we know that he didn't just retire; he actually went on to start the MI5. And he was the handler for Sidney Riley, who was, a lot of people believe, is the template for James Bond.
LYDEN: William Kalash, why do so many people believe that when Ehrich Weiss, a.k.a. Harry Houdini, died in 1926, died in one of his own escape acts?
Mr. KALUSH: Well, that comes from the movie from the '50s with Tony Curtis.
LYDEN: Oh, the great Tony Curtis movie.
Mr. KALUSH: Yeah.
LYDEN: With his wife Janet Leigh.
Mr. KALUSH: That's right. And it has caused a lot of people to think that that's true, and it absolutely is not true.
LYDEN: How did he die?
Mr. KALUSH: Well, the true story has always been that he was punched in the abdomen while relaxing in Montreal, and then a little over a week later he dies of a ruptured appendix in Detroit. So we started speaking with doctors and we found out that it's not possible, really, that you could be punched and it causes appendicitis. And we found that before this incident he had been sick by something he'd eaten. And his wife had been sick as well. We looked at the idea that many of the spiritualists that he'd debunked were predicting his death, were really angry about what he was doing to the fraudulent spiritualist movement.
Then we hit the goldmine. We contacted his biggest nemesis at the time, Marjorie, the medium who he debunked. Her great granddaughter, I think she's in her 30s, and we asked if she still had any of the papers, letters, anything like that. And she said, well, yeah, I have it all. And we found a whole new story, a story about Marjorie's husband, the Harvard trained surgeon who really, really despised Houdini. He was an expert in appendectomies. In fact, his nickname was Belly Button Crandon because he invented a surgery that went in through the navel instead of through the side. And this guy was adopting little boys from England and they're disappearing. And Houdini had somehow found out about this. He informed the Secret Service of the United States. So all of these players are involved and they're predicting Houdini's death and then all of the sudden he gets very sick and he dies on October 31, 1926.
LYDEN: So you can't prove it, but perhaps it was the poison pill in the library with the butler.
Mr. KALUSH: It's possible.
LYDEN: William Kalush is the co-author of "The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero," together with Larry Sloman. Thanks again for speaking with us.
Mr. KALUSH: All right. Thank you.
LYDEN: And you can read about Harry Houdini's early days in an excerpt from the book at npr.org.